A Closer Look at the Great Ape Protection Act (GAPA)

The status and future of chimpanzee research in the US are at the heart of much discussion lately in both scientific and public spheres.  A committee convened by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to consider the issue held a number of meetings and is expected to report its findings to the NIH by the end of this year. Legislation to end great ape research, also introduced in 2007 and 2009 (H.R. 1513: Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act of 2011;  S. 810: Great Ape  Protection and Cost Savings Act of 2011; GAPA), was again introduced last Spring.

Discussion of human relationships with the great apes, their role in research—past, present, and future—and our responsibility for their continued care deserve thoughtful, well-informed consideration by both the scientific community and the public.  One of the primary goals of Speaking of Research is to contribute to dialogue about animal research and to provide factual information that is sometimes missing from the public conversation.

In the case of chimpanzee research, their housing and care, and the GAPA legislation, it seems clear that there is uneven understanding of the current situation in the U.S., as well as lack of attention to the details and consequences of the proposed legislation were it to be enacted.  There has been significant and widespread discussion of whether chimpanzee research should continue.  What has received far less attention is what should happen to the chimpanzees should invasive research not continue. We take a closer look at GAPA here and also welcome others’ thoughts on the future of chimpanzee research, care, and housing in the U.S..

First up is the question of what exactly would be banned under GAPA.  The legislation is pitched as a measure to end invasive research with chimpanzees.  Much of the media coverage and discussion of chimpanzees in research also makes specific reference to invasive studies.

But what exactly does that mean?  The general definition given by the legislation is:

“The term ‘invasive research’ means any research that may cause death, injury,         pain, distress, fear, or trauma to a great ape, including—

– the testing of any drug or intentional exposure to a substance that may be detrimental to the health or psychological well-being of a great ape;

– research that involves penetrating or cutting the body or removing body parts, restraining, tranquilizing, or anesthetizing a great ape; or

– isolation, social deprivation, or other experimental manipulations that may be detrimental to the health or psychological well-being of a great ape.

Exclusions include:

– close observation of natural or voluntary behavior of a great ape, if the research does not require an anesthetic or sedation event to collect data or record observations;

– the temporary separation of a great ape from the social group of the great ape, leaving and returning by the own volition of the great ape;

– post-mortem examination of a great ape that was not killed for the purpose of examination or research; and the administration of a physical exam by a licensed veterinarian or physician conducted for the well-being of the individual great ape.

Physical Exam is defined as:

A physical exam conducted for the well-being of an individual great ape, as described in clause14 (i)(IV), may include the collection of biological samples to further the well-being of the individual great ape, the social group of the great ape, or the great ape species.”

It seems likely that when most people think of invasive research with chimpanzees they would probably consider studies that involve surgery or infectious disease.  Looking at the text above, it appears obvious that these would be precluded under GAPA.

What is less clear is whether noninvasive studies would also be disallowed under GAPA. Why?

First, because it precludes “research that involves … anesthetizing a great ape” something that is typically necessary to ensure both human and animal safety for studies that use noninvasive techniques such as neuroimaging (ex. magnetic resonance imaging, MRI; positron emission tomography, PET). Studies using MRI and PET with nonhuman primates are aimed at a wide spectrum of research addressing questions that range from evolutionary consideration of brain-behavior relationships to uncovering the effects of aging and factors that contribute to individual differences in health. Are these the types of studies—using equipment and techniques that are commonly used with humans– that typically come to mind as invasive studies? Probably not.

Whether anesthetizing a chimpanzee is an invasive procedure or one that is stressful is not clear-cut and is a question likely to generate a wide range of views among those with first-hand chimpanzee experience.  In part, it depends upon whether animals are trained to voluntarily, calmly, and cooperatively receive injections—something that is a best practice successfully implemented at many chimpanzee research facilities.  This video, shared with us by Dr. Steven Schapiro and the Michael E. Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research  serves as an excellent illustration of the practice.

The video shows a chimpanzee voluntarily, and without coercion, working with his human caregivers to give a sample of blood in exactly the manner of a human blood donor. The chimpanzees shown here are part of a training program led by a long-time leading expert in behavior and primatology, Dr. Schapiro. The video shows a chimpanzee who voluntarily places and holds his arm in a tube to provide a technician with access to draw blood. The chimpanzee is not restrained and is not coerced. The technician cues the chimpanzee with a “clicker” which provides an audible cue to signal the animal. The chimpanzee remains calm throughout the process and receives treats. The curious and calm approach and observation by another chimpanzee also tells us that the entire process is one that is not stressful to the animals.

Much of the language surrounding GAPA appears to be designed to convey a very different impression of the care of chimpanzees housed in research settings. We believe that a more honest discussion of chimpanzees in research should include consideration of the full range of housing and behavioral management, including acknowledgement of best practices such as those illustrated in this video and practiced in a wide range of settings.

The second question about what GAPA would preclude surrounds behavioral and cognitive research.  Many of these studies depend upon testing animals individually by temporarily separating them from their groups. GAPA asserts that such studies would be allowed only under very stringent—and possibly impractical—conditions. The chimpanzee could be temporarily separated from his/her group, but only if it were able to leave and return by its own volition.

For example, consider a recent study of prosocial behavior in chimpanzees by Frans de Waal and colleagues that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.  This study was positively featured on a Scientific American blog that also endorses GAPA. The study was conducted by bringing pairs of animals into a testing room containing tokens that they could exchange with the experimenter for a food reward. Their choices could result in both animals receiving food, or in a “selfish” outcome. The methods section doesn’t specify whether the animals were free to leave and enter the test room at their own volition, but it appears that they were not. If not, would we consider it invasive research?

A third question is whether GAPA would preclude studies that depend upon collection of biological samples that are acquired while animals are anesthetized for physical exams.  The language surrounding this is somewhat ambiguous, as it allows the sample collection if it is to “further the well-being of the individual great ape, the social group of the great ape, or the great ape species.”  What is not ambiguous is that, as written, GAPA would preclude even a simple blood draw—something humans routinely receive as part of medical care or even research—outside of an annual physical exam.

In sum, the issue of defining invasive research and the parameters of what should be allowed is clearly a complex issue. That complexity should be acknowledged in discussions of the future of chimpanzee research.  Virtually all of the procedures used in biomedical research involving chimpanzees that are regarded as invasive procedures are used in human beings in providing medical care.  The GAPA regards these procedures as acceptable if performed for the benefit of the individual great ape to provide care to that animal, but it is unacceptable if it is performed to gain knowledge that will improve the care of human beings or other great apes.

Similarly challenging are a range of other issues presented by consideration of the future of chimpanzees in the U.S., including decisions about their housing and care, as well as the source of long-term funding.

One premise of GAPA is that “research laboratory environments involving invasive research cannot meet the complex physical, social, and psychological needs of great apes.”  Sanctuaries are offered as the alternative for housing, yet little of the public discussion has focused on rigorous comparison of sanctuaries and research facilities in terms of either care offered or cost.

Finally, in this year’s iteration, the legislation has added language about “cost-savings” that appears to be based in analysis provided by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).  Whether the cost-savings claim is accurate or not remains open for debate.  Each of these issues will be covered in more detail in subsequent posts.

Whether the current legislation about great ape research passes or not, at this time it is perhaps more apparent than ever before that public interest in discussing the welfare of these animals is high. We hope that this interest carries over to serious discussion about the full range of issues and not only those that lend themselves to short-interest and emotive campaigns.

Allyson J. Bennett

*Disclosure – some of my collaborative research has involved behavioral and neuroimaging studies in laboratory chimpanzees.

Other posts on chimpanzee research:

On the cost of retiring chimpanzees and federal legislation aimed at ending chimpanzee research:  http://speakingofresearch.com/2011/12/08/what-cost-savings-a-closer-look-at-the-great-ape-protection-and-cost-savings-act-of-2011/


Guest post by primatologist Dr. Joseph Erwin:  http://speakingofresearch.com/2011/10/13/guest-post-efforts-to-ban-chimpanzee-research-are-misguided/

On the IOM chimpanzee panel:  http://speakingofresearch.com/2011/08/12/facts-must-inform-discussion-of-future-of-chimpanzee-research/

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